Pioneer Square parking: Did city just put neighborhood at a disadvantage?

Pioneer Square is supposed to be recovering. Now comes the city to impose higher rates and longer hours for street parking. Merchants and residents are left to wonder whether this is supposed to help.

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Iron pergola, Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square is supposed to be recovering. Now comes the city to impose higher rates and longer hours for street parking. Merchants and residents are left to wonder whether this is supposed to help.

Say, you’re a business owner in Pioneer Square. You’ve just survived the worst recession you’ll likely ever see. You’ve seen your peers’ businesses fail and “For Lease” signs dot First Avenue. The anchor tenant Elliott Bay Books has decamped to another neighborhood. But you are still hanging in there, although taking home less money while your operating costs continue to increase.

The city calls a meeting to talk about how they are changing parking meter rates to help bring more business to the neighborhood. This sounds like a great plan, right? Maybe they’ll advertise inexpensive parking in adjacent lots, or new parking holidays to attract shoppers.

And then you learn what they really want to do and you can hardly believe it. They want to raise parking rates and extend the hours of parking from 6 to 8 p.m. But that’s not all. They will reduce the cost of parking in Belltown, on the opposite side of downtown.

This is not a made-up story. This is reality for Derek Shankland, owner of the Pioneer Square delicatessen, Delicatus. On Mardi Gras, the city dispatched a team of planners from the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Office for Economic Development, and the Department of Planning and Development to talk with business owners and residents about the new parking rates (which have since gone into effect).

Forget for the moment, the wisdom of holding this meeting on Mardi Gras in Pioneer Square. This was not the worst part of the city’s tone deafness to timing. The worst part of this story is the simple truth that the city is showing a callous disregard for people who have been hanging on by their fingernails for the past few years only to be told that the city is going to provide more incentives for people not to visit your neighborhood.

For Shankland, he’d like to see the city help out with more beat cops and more help for the homeless. He knows the city needs money and is not necessarily against a rate hike in parking, although he thinks the timing is terrible. But he doesn’t understand how Pioneer Square can essentially be lumped in with the Downtown Retail Core, with $3.50 hourly parking rates in his area, alone at that rate and just one step below the city's top of $4 in downtown and on First Hill. While Pioneer Square is mainly mom-and-pop businesses, the Retail Core is the home of large, corporate stores.

Shankland’s bigger issue is with extending the meter hours from 6 to 8 p.m. in Pioneer Square. Not only does he believe that this will affect people’s decisions about where they will shop or enjoy happy hour, it will be a burden on the restaurant employees in the area. Waiters and bartenders tend to arrive for work between 4 and 5 p.m. Having them pay for an additional two hours of parking may not seem like much to a planner in the Seattle Municipal Tower, but it is a big impact for a group of people who have had a hard time getting through the recession.

And before the anti-car zealots cry for restaurant people to take the bus or bike, I should point out that a bartender finally able to leave work at perhaps 3 a.m. can’t really find a bus and won’t ride a bike. Taking a cab is a large expense and takes a bite out of your tips. As a former restaurant person, I understand Shankland’s point. Unfortunately, the mayor, city council, and SDOT planners don’t get it or don’t want to get it.

On its web site, the transportation department has this explanation for pay parking in the evening:

Seattle’s center city and many neighborhood business districts are active destinations for customers and visitors well into the evening. Charging in the evening will enhance parking turnover and access in areas with an active nightlife and other evening businesses. Extended paid parking into the evening until 8pm is coming to the Commercial Core, Belltown, Pioneer Square, Chinatown/International District, Broadway, Pike-Pine, Uptown, and the University District. This effort will roll out starting in April 2011 and continue through September 2011.

The experiment on businesses in Pioneer Square has been initiated because of a study by UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. The idea is to use variable pricing on street parking to manage demand and open up spaces in busy areas. This is how business owners hear it: Raise parking rates, fewer people come to the district, and there will be more parking. Great!

In fairness to the city, they did do a parking availability study. The problem for Pioneer Square is that the city did the study during the holiday construction moratorium on Nov. 16. Now that the moratorium is over, half of First Avenue is closed to parking and the southend of the neighborhood has lost free parking spots due to Viaduct-related construction. There will be more construction to come.

The city’s study also showed 57 percent occupancy from 6 to 8 p.m.  Shoup thinks the ideal occupancy is 85 percent. So why charge after 6 p.m. if the occupancy is below 85 percent? Occupancy rates for the time periods of 2 to 3 p.m. were 66 percent and they were 62 percent for the 4 to 5 p.m. period. The city, however, adjusted for seasonality and came up with an occupancy rate of 91 percent. The target is 78 percent — why it’s not 85 percent isn't obvious.

Businesses were not the only ones concerned about the city’s agenda for the neighborhood. Residents at the meeting had some interesting perspectives as well. Jenn Stellflug has lived in Pioneer Square for six years. She brought up the idea of establishing a Residential Parking Zone (RPZ) for the Square. This would provide Pioneer Square with the neighborhood status that it deserves. She was told by SDOT that RPZs are not allowed in the Downtown Core. But who thinks Pioneer Square is in the Downtown Core?

Stellflug's thoughtful approach should be heard by the council and Mayor Mike McGinn: “If we want a neighborhood that is vibrant and growing, with residents moving in and building roots, which would help businesses stay and thrive, they need to finally acknowledge that we as a neighborhood need to be looked at and considered individually, without being compared to other neighborhoods or forcing us to have the same rules apply to a neighborhood that doesn't suffer with these issues.”

This is a positive approach that would help demonstrate the city is listening to people who are working hard to make Pioneer Square work. Shankland and Stellflug represent views that are widely held in the neighborhood. If the city is serious about economic development and making it easier for people to live and work in urban neighborhoods, it needs to exit the Ivory Tower, hire some people who understand business, and spend more time with the people who create jobs and build community. The transportation department should also align their efforts around parking with the efforts of the Alliance for Pioneer Square and the Main Street program.

All due respect to Dr. Shoup and the city's attempts to interpret how his work applies here, this isn't Los Angeles. And Pioneer Square is a neighborhood.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.